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The First 49 Stories by Ernest Hemingway (1938) 414 p.

I’m not the biggest fan of Ernest Hemingway, but I was in Tokyo’s famous Jimbocho district and I’d finally found an English-language bookstore, a second-storey nook disconcertingly named “Bondi Books” that sold vintage and antiques, and I didn’t feel like leaving empty-handed. So I picked up this cheap Hemingway anthology, and I’m glad I did, because it was quite good and I think I’m starting to understand him as a writer.

The First 49 Stories is, obviously, a collection of Hemingway’s first forty-nine short stories. It is often said that he was a better short story writer than novelist, and while I’ve only read two of his novels I’d have to agree. Reviewing something like this is difficult, because there’s not a lot that can be said about Hemingway. It’s Hemingway. You either like him or you don’t.

One thing I did realise while reading this is that Hemingway’s stories are excellent study material for aspiring writers, because his style is so bare and dry that it strips away all the excess and leaves nothing but the exposed skeleton of the story: structure, tone, dialogue. I studied a lot of these stories quite carefully, because I’ve been trying and failing to write good short stories lately, and if Hemingway cannot teach me how to then nobody can. His “Iceberg Theory” is used to great effect throughout the anthology, particularly in “The Brief And Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “The Killers,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” “Alpine Idyll,” and “The Three-Day Blow.” When Hemingway is at his best he wastes not a single word or sentence, and stories running no longer than a few pages can contain great depths of symbolism, emotional depth and austere beauty. “The Three-Day Blow,” for example, is only ten pages long, yet contains an examination of alcoholism, male companionship, youthful love, and uncertainty.

When I was in university I read a couple of Hemingway stories and came to the conclusion that they weren’t about anything. I was wrong, of course. Much like life itself, they’re about everything – as long as you pay careful attention.

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March 2009